Based on the popular light novels by Reki Kawahara, Sword Art Online is one of the best-known anime of the past decade. The fantasy sci-fi series has captured the imaginations of viewers across the world with its adventures through different game worlds and often blurs the lines between virtual reality and real life.
As the series continues to grow, it can be intimidating to newcomers with its unique timeline and lengthy titles for story arcs and films. Here's a breakdown of the full SAO timeline and the best order in which to watch it.
Season 1: Sword Art Online (Aincrad/Fairy Dance)
The first season that started it all is split into two arcs: the "Aincrad" Arc and the "Fairy Dance" Arc. "Aincrad" introduces protagonist Kazuto "Kirito" Kirigaya, who in November 2022 is trapped, along with 10,000 other players, within the VR world of Sword Art Online. The threat is real: anyone who dies in the game dies in real life, and all 100 floors must be cleared in order to escape the game and return to the real world. It's filled with exciting battles and heartbreaking deaths — love even blossoms in the midst of the life-or-death struggle.
"Fairy Dance" begins two months after the end of "Aincrad." 300 players from the SAO incident remain trapped for reasons unknown, including Kirito's beloved girlfriend Asuna. She remains unconscious and extremely frail in the real world as Kirito finds out she is being held hostage in another VR game, ALfheim Online. The world and cast start to expand here as Asuna's family and connections are introduced, along with a mysterious government representative whose influence grows with each successive season.
Sword Art Online: Extra Edition (Film)
This short film features Kirito giving a full recap of Season 1's events to government official Seijirou Kikuoka. There's also some brand new content as the girls have a swimming adventure in the real world and the full cast finally enjoys a non-life threatening quest in ALO.
Season 2: Sword Art Online II (Phantom Bullet/Calibur/Mother's Rosario)
Season 2 begins with the "Phantom Bullet" Arc, a full year after the SAO incident. As the new shooter VR game Gun Gale Online grows in popularity, two mysterious incidents involving a player named Death Gun alarm the authorities. When Death Gun shoots a player's avatar, that player also ends up dying in the real world. Due to Kirito's gaming knowledge and expertise, he is asked to dive into GGO and investigate. He teams up with sniper extraordinaire Shino "Sinon" Asada and learns the antagonists are more familiar than he realized.
The "Calibur" Arc is a short but fun filler adventure for the full cast — now including Sinon — back in ALfheim Online. A lighthearted story that sits in between two significantly heavier ones.
"Mother's Rosario" is an emotional story that gives Asuna her long-awaited turn in the spotlight. Back in ALO, she hears of an expert sword fighter named Zekken who is undefeated in one-on-one battles, including a victory over Kirito. Asuna and Zekken, real name Yuuki, become fast friends and Asuna joins her guild for a time. Reality, however, isn't so lighthearted as Yuuki carries a devastating real-world burden connected to her desire to compete in ALO. Have tissues at the ready.
Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online
SAO Alternative is a separate series with a whole different cast of characters. Based on the light novels by Keiichi Sigsawa, the only similarity to the main series is that it takes place in the already-established world of Gun Gale Online. It can be viewed completely on its own, although a couple of easter egg references to Sinon and Kirito might be missed without watching the "Phantom Bullet" Arc first.
Shy college student Karen Kouhirimaki struggles with socializing and making friends due to her exceptionally tall height. She decides to try VR games as an escape and comes to love the thrill of Gun Gale Online, which also allows her to create her own avatar and become the short, pink-clad girl she always wanted to be. Now full of confidence as Llenn, she guns down all who stand in her way as she competes in a tournament that means life or death for one particular player.
Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale (Film)
Back in the main timeline, the Ordinal Scale film takes place a few weeks after the end of the "Mother's Rosario" Arc. It also has the distinction of being an anime-exclusive story, not appearing in author Kawahara's light novels.
A new augmented reality device called the Augma is all the rage, with a combat-based game called Ordinal Scale becoming the first ARMMORPG. Kirito shows little interest in AR until Asuna and the others tell him that boss monsters from the original Sword Art Online game have started appearing. The mysteries compound when the game's second-ranked player, Eiji, purposely injures Klein and his guild, leaving them in the hospital. Multiple SAO survivors who interact with Eiji, including Asuna, begin to lose the memories of their time in SAO.
Season 3: Sword Art Online - Alicization (Alicization/War of Underworld)
The third and still-ongoing season of SAO is its longest and most expansive so far. Split into three arcs — "Alicization,""War of Underworld" Part 1" and "War of Underworld Part 2" — it begins a few months after the events of Ordinal Scale.
"Alicization" sees Kirito working with the top secret government-run company Rath to test a new experimental full-dive machine called the Soul Translator (STL). After being attacked in the real world by a member of the Death Gun plot from Season 2, Kirito suffers significant brain damage and is only kept alive thanks to the STL. As Kirito wakes up in the Underworld with his real-world memories intact, he must figure out how to survive in a much more realistic VR world than ever before while Rath's true goals for the STL become clear.
The subsequent "War of Underworld" arc continues the events of Alicization as a world-spanning war breaks out in the Underworld with major international consequences for the real world as well. "Part 2" is currently airing and available to stream on Crunchyroll.
It can be confusing, but the SAO anime's chronology does fit in a proper order — though Alternative can be viewed independently —even though many of the stories begin very shortly after their preceding arcs. Seems Kirito and friends get even shorter spans of peace and quiet than the Dragon Ball cast.